I applaud The Fresno Bee’s recent coverage of the inspiring work of our medical professionals at the Valley Children’s Hospital, who are encountering an alarming number of cases of child abuse and neglect. This is a medical crisis, a moral crisis, and a public safety emergency.
As district attorney part of my job is to seek justice for crime victims and ensure public safety. It is also imperative that I use my position to advocate for policies that prevent crime. The most important thing we can do – bar none – to prevent crime in our community is beginning prenatally, to provide children with safe and nurturing environments, and to do all we can to see that parents and youngsters are educated.
Neuroscientists tell us that the first few years of a child’s life are a period of unparalleled brain development, with hundreds and thousands of connections forming in the brain every second. This “wiring” is the basis on which all future learning will be built.
Yet far too many children do not get the stimulating and nurturing environments that they need. All too often, they start kindergarten behind their peers, often exhibiting signs of trauma or neglect – and stay that way throughout their academic careers, placing them at higher risk of dropping out and turning to crime. How can we improve parenting, and how can we ensure that all children start school healthy and ready to learn?
I am a strong supporter of voluntary home-visiting programs that enable young, inexperienced parents to receive guidance from nurses and other trained mentors who help them understand how to address their children’s physical and emotional needs and become better moms and dads. We need to develop a plan to substantially expand the availability of home visiting offered through evidence-based home-visiting programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership.
NFP is a voluntary parent education program with 37 years of success in reducing preterm births, maternal mortality, pregnancy complications, and child abuse and neglect. This parent coaching begins prenatally, involving weekly parent education visits by specially trained nurses up through the child’s second birthday. Forty years of rigorous evaluation of the NFP program documents its effectiveness. The results: Child abuse and neglect incidents are reduced by half, children’s medical and educational outcomes greatly improve, and future criminality for participating mothers and children are vastly reduced.
The good news is, we have an NFP program in Fresno that has been here for 20 years. The bad news: It used to serve 400 families but due to shortsighted budget cuts it now only serves 250 families – and there is always a waiting list. I say “shortsighted cuts” because the research shows that every tax dollar spent on NFP breaks even by a child’s first birthday and saves more than $4 in health, education, public safety and other benefits before a child’s 19th birthday.
The truth is that we really do know a lot about what works to break the cycle of abuse and neglect and to get our children off to a good start. Many studies and decades of research connect high-quality early education to crime prevention, improved graduation rates and long-term cost savings.
For example, a long-term study of Michigan’s Perry Preschool found that at age 40, adults who participated in the preschool program had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, have committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school. Overall, the study documented a return to society of more than $16 for every tax dollar invested in early care and education program.
A study of a Chicago program that has served more than 100,000 children found that at-risk kids who did not attend a high-quality preschool were by age 18, 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. By age 26, 39 percent were more likely to have spent time behind bars.
According to the Local Planning Council Priorities (2015-16), there are 32,893 low-income children in Fresno County who would qualify for state-funded preschool or Head Start. Of those children, only 8,813 receive State Preschool or Head Start services. In other words, 73.2 percent of our low-income children are not receiving integral early education services.
High-quality parent coaching and early education programs are just two research-based investments proven to set children and youth on the path to healthy, successful futures. There are many more proven interventions to heal children and youth exposed to trauma. Youth development science teaches us that children and adolescents are resilient and respond to various therapeutic treatments. We need to search out the information on what we know works and build it into our community.
The cost of inaction is high: Kids who drop out of high school become addicted to drugs and commit frequent crimes cost our communities an average of $2.5 million over their lifetimes.
We have a moral obligation as a society to protect all children from harm. We must all redouble our efforts to do everything we can, from the beginning, to provide safe, nurturing havens for all children.
We know what works. We simply have to find the will to do it.
Lisa A. Smittcamp is the Fresno County district attorney.